Monday, September 24, 2007

Week 3: I can't watch

With the exception of Chargers-Packers and Cowboys-Bears, the slate of games the NFL offered for Week 3 of the 2007 season was the weakest and least-entertaining selection in the three years I've been writing Down and Distance. From Sunday at noon all the way through to Monday night, it was a parade of listless divisional games, throwaway interconference matchups, and assorted odds and ends. The amazing thing is that nine of Sunday afternoon's 14 games were decided by a touchdown or less, and yet, I couldn't have cared less. How many of you sat through Arizona at Baltimore? How about Cleveland at Oakland? Carolina at Atlanta? Indianapolis at Houston? Do you even remember who won the Jets-Dolphins game? I, for one, couldn't remember who I picked 10 minutes after I picked them. And be honest: If Tennessee at New Orleans had not been on Monday Night Football, would you have even watched?

Sunday's late games were the worst, so bad that I actually shut off the TV while the last game -- Giants at Redskins -- was still undecided. Mind you, I pay 50 bucks a month for the Sunday Ticket, so turning off football is like throwing money away. But then I watched the highlights and saw that in the closing moments of that last game, the Redskins, needing a touchdown to tie, had fourth and goal and didn't even have Clinton Portis on the field, and I was glad that I had done the right thing.

When all the dust had settled, I had gone 10-6 for the week in our picks league. Not as good as last week's 11-5 -- or the 13-3 from the opening week -- but still OK, considering that this is the most maddening part of the season. It's so maddening because this is when you come face to face with your presumptions. I picked New Orleans over Tennessee, for example, because I just couldn't believe the Saints are that bad (they are, it seems). I picked San Diego over Green Bay because I just couldn't believe the Packers are that good (they are, it seems). Picking games in Weeks 2-5 is tough because you're still adjusting your idea of who's "good" and who's "bad." It takes a while to shake out.

Baltimore 26, Arizona 23
Tampa Bay 24, St. Louis 3
Pittsburgh 37, San Francisco 16
Philadelphia 56, Detroit 21
N.Y. Jets 31, Miami 28
New England 38, Buffalo 7
Indianapolis 30, Houston 24
Seattle 24, Cincinnati 21
Oakland 26, Cleveland 24
Carolina 27, Atlanta 20

Green Bay 31, San Diego 24
Kansas City 13, Minnesota 10
Jacksonville 23, Denver 14
N.Y. Giants 24, Washington 17
Dallas 34, Chicago 10
Tennessee 31, New Orleans 14


For the second week in a row, Sunday night really was football night in America, as NBC once again landed the week's marquee matchup, Dallas at Chicago. However, because the Bears were involved, I resolved not to watch any of the pregame festivities because I couldn't bear to hear anything else about Rex Grossman. I'm sick and tired of Rex Fucking Grossman. OK, gang, I get it: He's an inconsistent quarterback. "Good Rex," "Bad Rex," all that. Can we move on now?

And then the game starts, and Rex F. Grossman stumbles out onto the field and, by dint of his nasty play, guarantees that all we're going to hear about for the next week is Rex F. Grossman. The guy really is that bad. What's especially fascinating, though, is that he's moved beyond just sabotaging the Bears' offense. He's starting to destroy their defense and special teams, too. Let me explain: With about a minute left in the first quarter and Chicago up 3-0, Bears safety Adam Archuleta intercepted a Tony Romo pass at midfield. Three plays later, Grossman heaved the ball downfield into coverage and was intercepted. Thanks for your hard work, Adam! The Cowboys didn't do anything with that opportunity and were forced to punt. Devin Hester, perhaps feeling pressure to score another return TD because God knows Grossman ain't putting any points on the board, muffed the punt, but fell on it. (Hester would later fumble a kickoff return. The Bears recovered, and on the first play from scrimmage, Grossman threw an interecption that Anthony Henry brought back for a touchdown.) Then, with about two minutes left in the first half, the Bears blocked a field goal, and Archuleta scooped up the ball and ran it to midfield. Thanks again, Adam! Grossman proceeded to throw a bunch of incomplete passes before the Bears botched a field goal try of their own. Is it any wonder, then, that later in the game Archuleta was missing tackles and getting beaten in coverage? I know these players are pros and all, but I wouldn't condemn guys like Archuleta and Hester for wondering why the hell they're knocking themselves out making plays when Grossman is just going to give the ball right back.

There's a drinking game to be made out of Lovie Smith's press conferences: Drink every time Smith says "Rex Grossman is our quarterback"; drink twice when he mentions the team's record "with Rex Grossman as our quarterback." Drink the whole thing if he ever mentions Brian Griese's name. After Sunday night's game, Smith started in with "Rex Grossman is our quarterback" before he was even asked, probably because the crowd at Soldier Field began chanting Griese's name in the first quarter and got louder with each of Grossman's three interceptions. As the chants continued, Al Michaels and John Madden were up in the booth explaining why switching to Griese might not be such a great idea: because Griese, a 10-year veteran, would be at best a stopgap measure. It wouldn't be like the Broncos deciding last year to bench Jake Plummer for Jay Cutler, or the Bengals going with de facto rookie Carson Palmer in 2004, even though Jon Kitna had just had a career year. Cutler and Palmer were the future of their franchises, and the sooner they got on the field, the sooner they could get over their growing pains and start putting up W's. Grossman, however, is supposed to be the future of the Bears franchise. Pulling him would mean conceding failure and starting over at the quarterback position.

To which I (and all of Chicagoland) say: So what? This is the third straight season in which the only thing standing between the Bears and immortality is crappy play at quarterback. Two years ago, the defense played lights-out football -- and had to, because Kyle Orton was a disaster under center. Last year, not only did the defense play lights-out football, so did the special teams -- and, again, they had to, because Grossman started the season solid, then developed a slow leak, then imploded entirely. Defensive dominance like that demonstrated by the Bears the past few years is not as easy to maintain as offensive dominance; teams eventually find your weaknesses and exploit them. As young as the Bears may be, their window is getting narrower by the week, and they need a QB who can get the ball through that window without smashing the glass and buckling the siding.

Rex Grossman is a lot of goddam things, but what he isn't is a game manager, and that's what the Bears need right now: Someone who can take the good field position he's consistently given by the defense and the kick-return teams, and turn that field position into 20-24 points a game. Trent Dilfer filled that role for the 2000 Ravens. Brad Johnson did so for the 2002 Buccaneers. On the 2007 Bears, Griese's more likely to fill the role than Grossman is. Hell, I'm more likely to fill the role than Grossman is. The Bears need to knock off the Grossman experiment, because the future really is now.

(All this focus on Grossman, though, is terribly unfair to the Cowboys, who played an excellent game Sunday night. I'm willing to admit it if I was wrong about Wade Phillips as a head coach, but I'm not ready to go there yet.)

One team that has never been afraid to bench its quarterback of the future -- or of the present or past -- is the Arizona Cardinals, and that willingness to play musical QBs appears to be the one thing that survived the transition from the Dennis Green era to the Ken Whisenhunt era. Perhaps that's why the Cardinals are the one team for whom the future will never arrive.

Failing to get any kind of push against the Ravens on Sunday, Whisenhunt sat Matt Leinart's Hollywood ass on the bench and called over the intercom, "Cleanup on Aisle 4!" That was the cue for the Arizona backup QB, former stockboy-turned-wunderkind-turned-stockboy Kurt Warner. I'm tempted to put Warner's name in italics because I wonder how many people outside of Iowa were even aware that he was still in the league. Warner, of course, was a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and a two-time league MVP, but that was 45 dog years ago. Since 2001, he's resembled Joe Montana only in that he gets hurt all the time and that he has been benched three times for QBs of the future (Marc Bulger in St. Louis, Eli Manning in New York, Leinart and others in Arizony). Anyway, Warner came in and played extremely well against the Ravens, tying the game with a 17-point fourth quarter before Baltimore pulled out the victory with a field goal on the final play.

And now the Cardinals have a full-blown quarterback controversy on their hands. Unlike Lovie Smith, who has stuck to his guns on Grossman because he knows that once he makes the switch there's no going back, rookie head coach Whisenhunt thinks he can trot Warner out there for a few plays without destroying Leinart's confidence (and wasting all that money the team has committed to him). Whisenhunt explained afterwards that the team has a "Kurt Warner package" of hurry-up plays that the backup is more suited to run. Leinart remains the starter, the coach said, while Warner will be the no-huddle specialist. All of which is bullshit. Many teams will bring in their backups in specialty situations -- the 300-pound Jared Lorenzen on short yardage for the Giants, or a Slash-style QB like Seneca Wallace to run the option -- but they do so because the starter is ill-suited to those specific roles. But Leinart is a classic drop-back passer, and Warner is also a classic drop-back passer. The Cardinals want Warner to run the no-huddle because they have no confidence that Leinart can do it, and, more important, they don't want to let him learn.

The future is not now in Arizona. This team is still at least a year or two away. But destroying Leinart's confidence for short-term gain may well guarantee that the future will continue to never arrive. If that makes any sense.

The Ravens might have a QB controversy themselves, if the team and the city hadn't already given up on Kyle Boller long ago. Despite looking sharp toward the end of the 2005 season, Boller lost his starting job the next year when Baltimore brought in Steve McNair. However, McNair, as has been his wont, gets hurt a lot, and Boller has filled in admirably so far this season. He nearly led the Ravens to victory against the Bengals, only to have the game-tying TD taken away by a bogus penalty; he beat the Jets last week; and he engineered the game-winning drive on Sunday (well, he and Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson, whose cheap shot on Todd Heap gave the Ravens 15 free yards). Ravens coach Brian Billick says McNair remains the team's starter, but Boller will be ready to come in if McNair's groin gives him trouble (gives McNair trouble, that is).

Baltimore has had QB controversies pre-loaded ever since Billick canned Dilfer right after the Super Bowl, but this time around the coach appears to be playing it pretty well. Any time he benches McNair, he can just say it was because he pulled his groin (McNair pulled his groin, that is). Then, if Boller screws the pooch (no, not that one), Billick can just say McNair's groin is better and put him back in. Quite Easily Done!

Even if I'd known that this game was going to have all sorts of QB intrigue, a Super Bowl XXXIV rematch -- Warner vs. McNair! -- and a down-to-the-wire finish, I highly doubt I'd have found time in my empty schedule to watch. Some interconference games you just know are going to be good, or at least rich with tradition or symbolism. Others are just so uninviting as to be distasteful. Those are the ones they play because they have to. Every team has to play every other team at least once every four years. In the case of the Arizona Cardinals and the Baltimore Ravens, even that may be too often. There's no reason for these teams to play. Ever.

Speaking of desultory, unattractive interconference matchups, here's another: Cincinnati at Seattle. Ugly, ugly game -- and that was just the uniforms. Oh sure, it went down to the last minute -- what didn't this week? -- but color me blah. If you had to pick one team in each conference for whom the expectations will always outstrip the performance, you could do worse than to pick the Cincinnati Bengals and the Seattle Seahawks. And the Seahawks were in the Super Bowl just two years ago. Both teams are filled with talented players, and yet the whole is usually considerably less than the sum of the parts.

With the Bengals, the problem this year is fairly simple. The team's third receiving option, Chris Henry, is sitting out half the season on suspension, so Carson Palmer is forcing everything to Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in double coverage. And "forcing" is the operative word, because his mechanics look all winky-wonky. He's throwing a half-step behind or a half-step ahead of the receivers, and his fade passes go too far. Meanwhile, Rudi Johnson is going nowhere. With the Cincinnati defense so awful, the Bengals are pressing to score on every drive. When you press, you make mistakes.

As for the Seahawks, well, 2007 has got 9-7 written all over it. Once again, that may be good enough to win the NFC West, because the Rams are awful, the 49ers are bogus and the Cardinals are playing patty-cake with quarterbacks.

With the Vikings playing the Chiefs, there was no question which game was going to be selected for the KDSM Central Iowa Crap Matchup of the Week, though it's not like Fox had much to choose from in the early slot. I've already dealt with Arizona-Baltimore. Two of the three other options were San Francisco at Pittsburgh and St. Louis at Tampa Bay. Feel free to write your own impressions of any of those games and post them in the comments (ha), because I've got nothing that hasn't already been said.

The final Fox early game was Detroit at Philadelphia, which turned out to be quite the barn-burner, but who would have expected the Eagles to put up 56 points with the way they'd been playing? As a sign of how my Sunday went, I started following this game in the second half, after the teams had put up a combined 63 points in 28 minutes. Naturally, they scored a total of 14 the rest of the way. There's nothing I can say about this game that hasn't already been said. Donovan McNabb had a great game when he needed it most, Jon Kitna threw for a lot of meaningless yards, and the Eagles' throwback uniforms were the ugliest yet. Yesterday on the local sports radio station (which, regrettably, is Fox rather than ESPN), some asswipe was making a huge deal about the uniforms. "Get 'em off my high-def TV!" he shouted, in what may go down in history as the most pathetic, trying-too-hard, faux-macho, pretentious statement ever uttered on sports radio. Oh, you have a high-def TV, do you? How often do you suppose he casually mentions that he drives a Hummer or Lexus or whatever piece-of-shit-mobile he's paying too much for? Don't tap your feet too hard in the News Corp. restroom, dude.

The good games were all on CBS, including the best of the lot, San Diego at Green Bay, which miraculously aired in Iowa, even though Cleveland at Oakland was available! While everyone focused on the resurgence of Brett Favre and the Packers, I was intrigued by the continued NorvTurnerization of the Chargers. There was a point in the game where Philip Rivers and LaDanian Tomlinson appeared to be getting into it on the sideline. That's not a big deal --- "It's an emotional game," as the players and coaches like to say -- and the two kissed and made up afterwards. Such conflict can be healthy if a franchise is moving in the right direction. You think Peyton Manning hasn't argued with teammates during a game? Tom Brady? McNabb? Of course they have. The good teams, the ones with strong leaderhsip, take those tensions and direct them outward, toward the opponents. But on teams with weak leadership, those kinds of problems remain focused inward, and the negative energy builds and builds until it bleeds out in the media, around the practice field and eventually on game day.

Bill Parcells can tell two feuding players to shut the fuck up and sit down. So can Bill Belichick. Tony Dungy would do it, if His Holiness could even bring himself to say "fuck." I bet Mike Tomlin's got no problem with doing so. But not Norv Turner. Norv is the teacher who gets assigned to monitor study hall, and when the two kids who wear leather jackets to school start fighting, he stands there impotently, shouting, "Come on guys! Come on! Break it up! I'm gonna have to call the principal!" Dissension tears teams apart -- and the more-talented teams are more vulnerable than the less-talented ones, because they have more guys who think that if they just got the ball more, everything would be fine. San Diego is 1-2 -- although, considering their schedule, it's a much better 1-2 than the one the Vikings are sitting on. If things spin out of control the way they tend to when Norv Turner's name is on top of the flowchart, the only way this team is going to the playoffs is if it backs in by winning a crappy division. (And hey, this just in: The Denver Broncos, having just beaten two awful, awful teams by the skin of their teeth, got rolled at home by Jacksonville. So it's not like anyone else is looking to step up in the AFC West.)

Despite the jawboning by Rivers and Tomlinson, the Chargers' offense actually played pretty well against the strong Green Bay defense. On the other side of the ball, however, there was trouble. Much has been made in this space about the Chargers' decision to fire Marty Schottenheimer and go outside the organization for his replacement, Turner. Over the past two weeks, though, it looks like the coach San Diego will really be missing is Wade Phillips. Whatever you think of Phillips' suitability as a head coach (and in my case, that isn't much), he's a hell of a defensive coordinator. With Phillips gone to Dallas, the Chargers, who last year were flying around making things happen, are now flying around watching things happen.

Since we're on the subject of teams falling apart, we might as well close with Monday Night Football, in which the Tennessee Titans proved that they are a team to be reckoned with, and the New Orleans Saints proved that they are not.

This game finally forced me to confront my feelings about Vince Young. I've never liked him, for reasons that have very little to do with Vince Young himself. Mostly they have to do with his coach at the University of Texas, Mack Brown. It goes back to the 2004 season, when Texas was on the BCS bubble. Undefeated Utah had wrapped up one of the two available at-large bids, meaning that Cal and Texas -- both with one loss -- were competing for the other bid. Poll voters had been ranking Cal higher all season, and it looked like the Bears were going to the Rose Bowl while Texas went to the Cotton Bowl or Capital One Bowl or some other hellhole. So Mack Brown, in true, manly, rugged, individualistic Texas form, cried like a big pussy and begged the voters to rank the Longhorns higher. They did, and Texas got in. I was so offended by this -- if you want a BCS bid so bad, why don't you just win your fucking games, Mack? -- that I began actively rooting against Texas. A year later, when the Longhorns met Southern Cal in the BCS title game, I pulled hard and was crestfallen when Young almost singlehandedly pulled out the win for Texas.

Later, when it came out that Young may be dumb as a board, I felt pathetically vindicated. When he made a fool out of himself by showing up at the White House in jeans and a sweatshirt when all his teammates wore jackets and ties, I smiled. I am a small, small person.

But that big, dumb, sloppy dressing bastard is one hell of a football player. Despite his bizarre, (literally) half-cocked throwing motion, he was shooting lasers to his receivers in the Superdome on Monday night. Further, he ran only when necessary. You can't overstate how remarkable it is for a young, excessively hyped "athletic" quarterback with the kind of mobility that Vince Young has to stay at home in the pocket and go through his reads before taking off running. The late Michael Vick, for example, would pull the ball down and run if his first receiver was covered.

It took me a long time to come around on Tom Brady, whom I petulantly held responsible for the Bill Belichick jobbed Drew Bledsoe. Hopefully it won't take as long with Young, because he seems like a good kid and a fantastic athlete.

OK, now for the team that's falling apart: The New Orleans Saints. Holy Shiite, do these guys look bad. The offense that stretched the field so well in 2006 now appears to subsist entirely on 1-yard flare passes and Reggie Bush plunges into a stacked line. Anytime Drew Brees went more than 5 yards downfield, the ball was picked off. I suppose some of New Orleans' impotence was attributable to the dogged Titans defenders, who chased down Saints ballcarriers with ruthless abandon, but not all of it. And on defense, New Orleans is just as bad. They can't -- or, at least, don't -- wrap anybody up. Young, LenDale White and Chris Brown had guys in black jerseys bouncing off them all game, like bugs off a windshield. It was ridiculous.

As bad as they looked, however, it was still ridiculous for Tony Kornheiser to start talking about the New Orleans Aints of yore before the first quarter was even out. I thought the MNF problems would be solved with Joe Theismann out of the booth, but I think Kornheiser is going to have to go, too. It's not just that he isn't original; it's that he says things so obvious that most of us at home wouldn't dare say them because we'd look stupid.

Down and Distance's exclusive KA-POWER RANKINGS are back for their third year. The product of a simple formula, the rankings have predicted 10 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners. Further, 14 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the KA-POWER RANKINGS system. Unlike with other, lesser rating systems, no opinion is involved in formulating these rankings. None. Teams are ranked on a centigrade scale, with 100 representing the NFL's strongest team and 0 its weakest. Don't like where your team is ranked? Blame science. (Key: WK3 = This week's ranking. WK2 = Last week's ranking. POW = KA-POWER centigrade score)
1 1Steelers 100.001718tCardinals45.96
2 2Patriots 95.771813Broncos 43.93
3 7Cowboys 73.4119 8Lions 39.11
4 4Colts 71.932022Raiders 38.45
514Bucs 70.092121Browns 36.99
6 5Packers 69.87221249ers 35.62
7 3Texans 64.422327Giants 34.74
823Eagles 63.702426Dolphins 33.78
9 6Vikings 63.572524Chargers 33.54
1015Titans 62.782628Jets 30.56
1111Jaguars 61.552720Bears 23.33
1210Seahawks 59.112831Chiefs 19.64
1316Panthers 53.122925Rams 15.66
14 9Redskins 51.583032Falcons 15.50
1518tRavens 50.153130Saints 6.57
1617Bengals 47.103229Bills 0.00

SEASON: 34-14 (70.8%)
(2006 through Week 3: 29-17, 63.0%)
(2005 through Week 3: 27-19, 58.7%)

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